Guru and Divine Grace
- From the book:
Sacred Journey: Living Purposefully and Dying Gracefully
by Swami Rama
Published for the Himalayan Institute Hospital Trust
by Lotus Press
In the effort to understand life and approach death meaningfully,
vairagya [non-attachment] and abhyasa [practices] are the
responsibility of the seeker. When these two are truly undertaken,
another help follows. That help comes in the form of guru and grace,
each linked to the other, each so beautiful and comforting, each so
powerful. Unfortunately, each is so frequently misunderstood.
Western culture, which has increasingly welcomed and embraced
traditions from the East in the last thirty years, has too often
understood guru to mean simply a teacher. In the West guru is
frequently considered to be merely someone who is trained in
philosophy, meditation, and hatha yoga. From this point of view, the
guru is expected to share this knowledge with the students, training
them in scriptures and various spiritual disciplines. While the
western student may become dependent on the teacher and have high
expectations about what the teacher should do on behalf of the
student, the guru is nonetheless viewed as a teacher only.
In ancient times students received formal education in guru-kulas.
The students lived with their guru from an early age and were given
not only instruction on an intellectual level, but also were guided
in spiritual development and in the maintenance of physical health.
The guru had a very close relationship with the students and knew
their habits and level of inner strength.
In today's life there is no spiritual environment in which a seeker
can fully concentrate on learning the language of silence in order to
find inner fulfillment. It is very difficult for the student not to
be distracted by the temptations of the external world. Modern
education focuses on memorizing facts of the external world, and
ignores the growth and development of the inner being. The guru-kula
system of ancient times is not practical in today's world, but a more
holistic approach to education can be adopted. Such an approach
emphasizes spiritual growth along with the development of the
intellectual aspects of the mind, and also includes guidance in how
to maintain the fitness and health of the physical body. In the
eastern tradition guru is much more than a teacher. He or she
represents the special energy that is guiding individuals toward
their fulfillment as human beings, toward perfection. Grace is the
impulse of that energy.
The word guru is a compound of two words, gu and ru. Gu means
darkness and ru means light. That which dispels the darkness of
ignorance is called guru. The energy and action of removing darkness
are guru. Guru is not a person, it is a force driven by grace.
To put this another way, there is an intelligent momentum that
pervades the universe that is moving all human beings toward the
perfection we call God. Guru is that intelligence. Everyone's
receptivity to that intelligence varies. It depends on preparation,
which includes the development of vairagya or nonattachment, and
abhyasa or practice. In other words, guru is always there, but the
student may not be ready to receive what the guru has to offer. When
the student is prepared, the guru always arrives to help the student
do what is necessary to progress in removing the veil of ignorance.
It is said that when the wick and oil are properly prepared, the
master lights the lamp.
Guru is not a person, but guru can be represented in a person. One
who has developed his or her own spiritual awareness to a very high
level can guide others, and is considered to be guru. Only one who is
finely attuned to the inner guide can inspire the awakening of the
inner guide in another. Guru is not a physical being. If a guru
begins thinking this power is her or his own, then they are no longer
a guide. The guru is a tradition, a stream of knowledge.
In India guru is a sacred word that is used with reverence and is
always associated with the highest wisdom. The guru is unique in a
person's life. The relationship between disciple and guru is like no
other relationship. It is said that guru is not mother, father, son,
or daughter. The guru is not a friend in any conventional sense. It
also is sometimes said that the guru is father, mother, son,
daughter, and friend all in one; the guru is sun and moon, sky and
earth to the disciple.
The truth is that the relationship of guru to disciple is
indescribable. The relationship extends to the realm beyond the
world, transcends death, and stretches far beyond the limited karmic
bonds associated with family and friends. A mother and father help
sustain the body of their child, and nurture and guide the child
through the formative years of life to adulthood. Guru sustains,
nurtures, and guides a soul through lifetimes to ultimate liberation.
The relationship with the guru is based on the purest form of
unconditional love. There is complete openness with the guru. The
disciple should hold nothing back from the guru. This is why in the
tradition, a student goes to the guru and offers a bundle of sticks
to burn. The bundle symbolizes that everything the disciple has is
offered unconditionally to the guru. Everything is offered to the
guru so the guru can do the work of shaping the student spiritually.
The disciple comes with full faith and entrusts his whole life to the
guru. The guru takes that life and chops it and burns what is not
necessary, and then carefully carves what remains into something
In this chopping and burning, the guru is merciless. The guru's job
is not to hold hands with the disciple and wipe away tears, but to
cut into pieces the disciple's ego and all that stands between the
disciple and freedom. The guru does not allow dependence. If the
disciple becomes too dependent on the guru, the guru pushes the
disciple away, insisting on independence. It is a remarkable
expression of the deepest love.
To be on a spiritual path with a guru is not an easy thing. It is not
pleasant. The guru tests the disciples, puts them in the most
difficult situations, and creates obstacles for them. All the tests,
difficulties, and obstacles are meant to train and expand the
consciousness of the disciple.
That is the sole work of the guru. The guru wants nothing from the
disciple. Guru is that force moving a soul toward enlightenment. The
guru's actions are from pure compassion. As the sun shines and lives
far above, the guru gives spiritual love and remains unattached.
Guru is a channel for spiritual knowledge. Jesus repeatedly reminded
his disciples of this. "I have not spoken of myself, but the Father
which sent me." The Father is that stream of pure knowledge. Jesus,
as an enlightened being, was attuned to that knowledge.
No human being can ever become a guru. Guru is not a human
experience, or, better said, guru is not a sensory experience. It is
a divine experience to be a guru. A human being allows herself or
himself to be used as a channel for receiving and transmitting by the
power of powers. Then it happens. Then guru manifests. To do that, a
human being must learn to be selfless, must learn to love. Real love
expects nothing. That is how genuine gurus live. Selfless love is the
basis of their enlightenment, and the basis of their roles as
channels of knowledge.
Guru is not the goal. Anyone who establishes himself as a guru to be
worshipped, is not a guru. Christ, Buddha, and other great persons
did not set up any such example. Guru is like a boat for crossing the
river. It is important to have a good boat and it is very dangerous
to have a boat that is leaking. The boat brings you across the river.
When the river is crossed the boat is no longer necessary. You don't
hang onto the boat after completing the journey, and you certainly
don't worship the boat.
Many times students come to the guru with a preconceived idea of what
the guru should be like. They come with expectations of what the guru
is there to do for them. Perhaps the students think the guru should
give them much attention, or make decisions for them, or take on
troubles they have created for themselves. Sometimes the students
think the guru should behave in a certain way. When these
expectations and preconceived images are not met, the student becomes
upset and may even leave the guru.
This is not the proper way to approach a teacher. A student should
not be filled with expectations and preconceived images, but with a
burning desire to learn, and with firm determination. Then there will
be no difficulty. The guru and the disciple can then do their work
The spiritual seeker should not worry about who the guru is, or what
the guru will do. The seeker's first concern is getting prepared,
organizing her or his life and thoughts in a spiritually healthy way,
and then working toward a way of life that simplifies and purifies.
At the right time the master will be there.
Once the guru has arrived, the methods and behavior of the guru
should not be the disciple's concern. The disciple's work is to act
on the instructions and teachings of the master, and at the same
time, work toward more and more selflessness, and surrender of the
ego. It is the ego that is the principle barrier to enlightenment.
A spiritual master's ways of teaching are many and sometimes
mysterious. To one student the guru may show much attention, spending
much time with a student, even doting on a particular student.
Another student may be utterly ignored by the master. It doesn't
matter. Each student is getting a teaching, and because of the
insight of the master, just the right teaching at the right time. The
guru is not in a student's life to give the student what the student
thinks she wants, but rather to give what is needed to progress
Jesus' parable of the prodigal son illustrates this. Briefly retold,
a man had two sons. One day one son asked for all the property and
wealth that would come in his inheritance. Then he went away and
lived a wild, sensory life of rich foods, drink, gambling, and women.
When all of that wealth was spent, the son returned. The father ran
to his son when he saw him, and hugged and kissed him. He gave him
expensive clothes to wear and ordered a feast to be held.
Meanwhile, the other son had remained all this time with his father,
working for him and beside him, always respectful and devoted. When
the devoted son saw all the attention given to the wayward and
reckless son, he asked his father how this could be.
"I've been here all these years with you, always serving you, obeying
every commandment, and you've never so much as given me a goat to
throw a party for my friends. Now my brother returns after
squandering all that wealth and living a wild life, and you treat him
like a king and make a grand celebration for him."
The father's response was essentially that the wayward son needed
this attention at this time, and the devoted son did not. Each son
was given what was right for his spiritual growth at the right time.
The guru does not operate from what seems fair, or outwardly
appropriate. He is not constrained to such cultural amenities. He can
seem harsh, even brutal. He will put students in situations that make
no sense, or are very uncomfortable. He will say things that won't
make any sense for months. He will ask things of students that
students think are impossible. Everything the guru is doing is for
the growth of the student. The student need only have faith in that
The guru also teaches without words or actions. As the disciple
learns to surrender and move the ego out of the way, and grows more
selfless, the ability to learn intuitively from the guru grows. The
student learns in the cave of silence. It is like tuning into the
guru's frequency or plugging into that stream of knowledge. The guru
is always working from there. The disciple's role is to gradually
learn to also work from that place. The disciple learns this by doing
all duties with love, by being nonattached, and by surrendering. The
disciple should always be striving to purify and prepare for more and
greater knowledge. Then God will say, "I want to enter this living
temple that you are." Remove the impurities and you will find that
the one who wants to know reality is the source of reality.
There is also the activity of grace. Grace is the impulse or the
impetus of the energy to dispel darkness. There is the grace of the
scriptures, from the wisdom that has passed down from others. There
is the grace of the teacher, who imparts that wisdom and helps bring
it to life in the student. There is the grace of God, or pure
consciousness, that is alive and ever present in everyone's life.
Integral to these three graces is the grace of oneself, having the
will to undertake a purposeful journey in life, to do the spiritual
work of life, and to prepare oneself.
How do we get this grace? It comes of its own when a seeker has made
maximum effort. When all efforts have been made, and all efforts have
been exhausted, then grace comes.
A Sanskrit word for grace is shaktipata. Shakti means energy, and
pata means bestowing. Shaktipata means "bestowing the energy" or
lighting the lamp. Sometimes shaktipata is translated as "descent of
power." A power comes from above, of its own, to a vessel that is
cleaned, purified, and is prepared to receive it. When the
instructions from the guru have been completed, the seeker has become
strong in selflessness and surrender, and the samskaras have been
burned, grace comes.
In my own life, since I was a small child I was raised and guided by
my master. I had done all that he asked of me. Grace had not come and
I grew frustrated. So one day I went to my master and said, "You have
not done shaktipata for me. That means either you don't have shakti
or you don't intend to do it."
I told him, "For so long now I have been closing my eyes in
meditation and I end up with nothing but a headache. My time has been
wasted and I find little joy in life."
He didn't say anything, so in my exasperation I continued talking.
"I worked hard and sincerely," I said to him. "You said it would take
fourteen years, but this is my seventeenth year of practice. Whatever
you have asked me to do I have done. But today you give me shaktipata
or I will commit suicide."
Finally he said to me, "Are you sure? Are you really following all
the practices I have taught you? Is this the fruit of my teaching,
that you are committing suicide?"
Then he waited a moment and said, "When do you want to commit
"Right now," I said. "I am talking to you before I commit suicide.
You are no longer my master now. I have given up everything. I am of
no use to the world, I am of no use to you."
I got up to go to the Ganges, which was near, and was prepared to
My master said, "You know how to swim, so when you jump in the
Ganges, naturally you will start swimming. You'd better find some way
so that you will start drowning and not come up. Perhaps you should
tie some weight to yourself."
"What has happened to you?" I asked him. "You used to love me so
I went to the Ganges and with a rope I tied some big rocks to myself.
When I was ready to jump, my master came and called, "Wait. Sit here
for one minute. I will give you what you want."
I did not know if he meant it, but I thought I could wait at least a
minute. I sat in my meditation posture and my master came and touched
me on the forehead. I remained in that position for nine hours and
did not have a single worldly thought. The experience was
indescribable. When I returned to normal consciousness I thought no
time had passed.
"Sir," I said to my master, "please forgive me."
With that touch my life was transformed. I lost fear and selfishness.
I started understanding life properly. I wondered if this experience
came about because of my effort or my master's.
His answer was simply, "Grace."
"A human being," he explained, "should make all possible sincere
efforts. When he has become exhausted and cries out in despair, in
the highest state of devotional emotion, he will attain ecstasy. That
is the grace of God. Grace is the fruit that you receive from your
faithful and sincere efforts."
Grace is only possible with a disciple who has gone through a long
period of discipline, austerity, and spiritual practices. When a
student has done these practices and followed the teacher's
instructions with all faithfulness, truthfulness, and sincerity, then
the subtlest obstacle is removed by the master. The experience of
enlightenment comes from the sincere effort of both master and
disciple. When you have done your duties skillfully and
wholeheartedly, you reap the fruits gracefully. Grace dawns when
action ends. Shaktipata is the grace of God transmitted through the
Guru is the disciple's guide through life, through the mysterious
terrain of the spiritual heart, and into and beyond the realm of